4. Art, Theory, Research, and Best Practices in Teaching
All teaching is a mix of art and science. It is an art because any teacher or instructor is faced with numerous and constantly changing variables, which require rapid judgment and decision-making. Good teachers usually have a passion for teaching so the emotional as well as the cognitive side is important. In many cases, it’s also about personal relationships, the extent to which an instructor can empathize with students or appreciate their difficulties in learning, and the extent to which the instructor can communicate effectively.
There is also a science of teaching, based on theory and research. We shall see in fact there are many, often conflicting theories, driven primarily by epistemological differences about the nature of knowledge, and by different value systems. Then over the last 100 years there has been a great deal of empirical research into how students learn, and effective teaching methods, which at its best is driven by a strong, explicit theoretical base, and at its worse by mindless data-collection (such as RateMyProfessor).
As well as research-based practices, there are what are known as best practices, based on teachers’ experience of teaching. While in many cases these have been validated by research or are driven by theories of learning, this is not always the case. As a result, what some people see as best practices are not always universally shared by others, even if best practices are seen in general as current accepted wisdom. Teaching math in primary schools in one example. Lectures are another. A strong evidence is provided that lectures have many limitations, yet many instructors still believe that this is the most appropriate way to teach their subject.
However, even the most extensively trained teachers don’t always make good teachers if they don’t have the talent and emotional connection with learners, and untrained teachers (which covers virtually all university instructors), sometimes succeed, even with little experience, because they have a knack or in-born talent. However, although such instructors are often held up as the triumph of art over science in teaching, they are in practice very rare. Many of these untutored, brilliant instructors have learned rapidly on the job by trial and error, with the inevitable casualties along the way.
For all these reasons, there is no one best way to teach that will fit all circumstances, which is why arguments over ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ approaches to teaching reading or math, for example, are often so sterile. Good teachers usually have an arsenal of tools, methods, and approaches that they can draw on, depending on the circumstances. Also, teachers and instructors will differ over what constitutes good teaching, depending on their understandings of what knowledge is, what matters most in learning, and their priorities in terms of desirable learning outcomes.
Nevertheless, these apparent contradictions do not mean that we cannot develop guidelines and techniques to improve the quality of teaching, or that we have no principles or evidence on which to base decisions about teaching, even in a rapidly changing digital age. The aim of this book is to provide such guidelines while recognizing that one size will not fit all, and that every teacher or instructor will need to select and adapt the suggestions in this book to their own unique context.
For this approach to work, though, we need to explore some fundamental issues about teaching and learning, some of which are rarely addressed in everyday discussions about education. The first and probably most important is epistemology.